It’s been a spring to forget for Southern Baptists.
It was only a few weeks ago that Baptists were wrapping their minds around Frank Page’s retirement-turned-disgraced resignation and his confession of unspecified (but presumably sexual) moral failure. In recent days the attention has turned toward Southwestern Seminary president Paige Patterson, one of the most elder statesmen of the convention. His old but recently unearthed comments about divorce and domestic abuse are deeply troubling, and nothing about Patterson’s public statement makes them better.
While it wouldn’t be fair or accurate to infer from Patterson’s remarks that Southern Baptists as a whole share his views about abuse and divorce (in my lifelong experience of SBC culture, many Southern Baptists are functionally more liberal in their views of divorce than other evangelicals), the comments matter, especially since their original context concerns pastoral counseling within a local church. It would be one thing (though still troubling) if Patterson had said that he would pray for an abused spouse to stay in the marriage as long as possible. To actually tell abused women in the church, as a pastor, to bear it prayerfully is a violent reminder that our theology matters, and the consequences of getting it wrong are often higher for everyday churchgoers than for pastors and leaders.
Patterson’s dispiriting remarks top off a dispiriting two years for Southern Baptists like me. In 2016 the denomination was eating at itself over Donald Trump. Russell Moore nearly lost his job over his criticisms of the then-candidate (interestingly, both Page and Patterson were quoted as being critical of Moore and supportive of Trump). The SBC’s tone-deafness toward their churches’ communities was further displayed by the embarrassing flop at the 2017 convention over a proposed resolution to condemn white supremacy. The resolution passed eventually, but only after Moore had rallied young Baptists to the voting floor, showing far more concern for the future of the denomination than the denomination had shown for him.
The last two years for the Southern Baptist Convention raise serious questions about the denomination’s ability to overcome cultural blind spots and political partisanship. The politics of the average SBC voter are not even the key problem here. The key problem is rather the institutional structure of the denomination and its internal politics of say-nothing, do-nothing, that keep un-Christian and un-biblical attitudes coddled within its walls. Whether we’re talking about white supremacy, or Calvinism, or divorce and domestic abuse, the elephant in the SBC room won’t go away on its own. Moral failure and horrifying pastoral counsel from SBC leaders are clues that something needs to change, and that the change that needs to happen cannot happen at the leisurely, step-on-no-toes pace that Baptists seem to value above everything else.
Moore’s saga two years ago illustrates much of what I’m talking about. Moore was hired by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission’s trustee board in part because he represented a break from the culture-warring political tribalism that his predecessor was known for. Despite the fact that Moore was and is completely orthodox and effusively Baptist in his theology, many Southern Baptists, including several with influence and power, cannot get comfortable with an ERLC head who doesn’t see the agency as an outpost of the Republican Party.
Ideally, younger Southern Baptists could effect change in the denomination by being patient, by participating in the life of the institution and by working within the existing structures to change minds and build new things. The problem staring at the SBC right now is that there is no good reason to think this will happen before those in current positions of power over large churches and denominational agencies simply use their power to keep this from happening. This is precisely what happened to Moore two years ago. As Moore was busy keeping Baptists consistent on their Clinton-era mantra that character matters and reminding us that God cares about sexual immorality and hateful words toward our neighbors, many of the big “B” Baptists—such as Jack Graham—were busy trying to remove Moore. It was a bitter season for Southern Baptists, and one that sends a discouraging message to young Baptists who identify with Moore’s gospel-centered agenda. One wonders if that was the whole point.
I realize that many will probably dismiss this perspective as “divisive.” Why do people like me keep talking about Trump and Martin Luther King, Jr., when what we really need to be talking about is sharing the gospel with the nations?
I’m sympathetic to this objection. It would indeed be nice if we could all focus on sharing the gospel. But there’s the rub. Before one shares the gospel one has to settle two things: What is the gospel and what does it mean to share it? Southern Baptists right now are deeply confused on both. For many in our denomination, the gospel is the good news of how you can walk down an aisle and “make a decision for Christ” at 9 years old and be permanently and unquestionably a member of the church and of the decent folk around town. Consequently, “sharing the gospel” means for many Southern Baptists nothing more than door-to-door tract sharing with the friendly people in the nice part of town. If by any chance a young black woman wants to talk about Jesus AND racial justice, or if a young seminarian wants to talk about Jesus AND historic theology, or if a group of people in the church want to talk about Jesus AND overcoming political divisions in the name of Christ…well, that’s a bridge too far, and those people just need to talk about Jesus.
This is a precarious time for Baptists. My deepest concern right now is that too few seem willing to admit this. It’s time we did. For Jesus’s sake.